Thursday, April 10th, 2014

...

Hisako settled into her school routine. Her newness had worn off unexpectedly quickly, but on the bright side, it meant she was already lapsing into a comfortable rapport with some of her classmates. The drama had settled down, too, for which she was eternally grateful. Suzuka was still just as friendly as when she'd met her, Mika was just as prickly but respectful, and Yuri was just as taciturn and awkward.

She wouldn't say she was making friends, however. At least not immediately. Suzuka had lamented the fact that she had practice right after school, but that was it. Hisako had the afternoons to herself. Her father, having started his new job, didn't usually return until the evening. She studied and kept up with her homework, but it wasn't terribly exciting. Her father didn't want her getting a part time job just yet, and she would respect his wishes, but she wished she had something to do after school.

She was out getting groceries when she saw the man again. It was the same handsomely dressed man who had approached her and invaded her space on the first day of school. She did a double-take, at first, surprised to see him again. He was in another fine suit, dark hair meticulously swept back, and appeared to be studying a bunch of carrots with inappropriate intensity.

She couldn't help but stare at him, but that was her mistake. He turned and caught her eye, brightening at once. Hisako turned and left, ducking into another aisle. She was nearly done with her shopping, but not quite. Too early for a total escape. Unfortunately, he followed her.

"Um, I'm sorry, but please stop following me," she said quickly and darted into another aisle.

"Wait, please!" She wasn't about to wait for the strange man, no sir. Hisako nearly tripped over her own feet as she scanned the market for the last things she needed. The man headed her off back at the vegetables. "I'm sorry," he told her, sounding sincere.

"I don't know who you are, but I'm just trying to get food. I didn't mean to interrupt your... examination of the carrots."

"I was only waiting for you." That made matters worse. "I'm so sorry, I don't mean to upset you, my dear. I promise I will leave you alone again once I have warned you."

"Warned me?" Hisako asked warily. He had to have mistaken her for someone else, but if he would just leave her alone, she'd listen to him. If it would avoid a scene, at any rate.

"It's my sister. She is trying to find a replacement and she's trying to leave her duties. I believe she plans on trying to use a human for it."

And with that, Hisako was done talking to the bizarre man. He caught her by the upper arm as she tried to get past him, and she flinched back. He frowned—but he didn't release her. "Let go of me!" she demanded.

"Inanna, please! I'm only trying to help you!" he cried.

"You have me mistaken for someone else. That's not my name, now let me go!" She tore her arm free and hurried towards the checkout. She could get the rest of her things tomorrow, just so long as she didn't have to deal with him. He obviously had something wrong with his head, and she had no idea who Inanna was supposed to be. It didn't sound like a Japanese name, and it definitely wasn't anyone she knew.

He didn't bother her again, thankfully. It seemed as if the few other customers and cashiers at the checkout kept him away, but that only made her worry more. The store wasn't too far from her new home. School, where she had first seen him, was across town; this was too close for comfort.

"Are you waiting for someone, miss?" Hisako jumped and returned to reality, shaking her head with a sheepish smile.

"No, just making sure... Nothing."

-.-.-

Friday, April 11th, 2014

...

"Good morning."

Hisako rubbed at her eyes. There was so much blue—that wasn't her room. She sat up and combed her fingers through her hair, squinting sleepily at her surroundings. Still a lot of blue, but faintly familiar. Something stirred in the back of her mind.

The massive-nosed man behind the desk gave a low chuckle. "It's not often I greet guests with that particular phrase," he admitted, seeming pleased with himself.

"This is... I remember this place," she said with a yawn. She was still in her pajamas, and looking down, she found herself on a surprisingly comfortable train seat. It was tempting to just fall back asleep there, even if it was potentially a dream.

"The Velvet Room, and I am Igor," he reminded her gently. She nodded. "It has not been long since our last meeting, but I called you here to let you know that things may be changing more rapidly than either of us had anticipated."

"Changing? How?"

"Your powers are budding, and they are about to bloom." She jumped as the pale-haired woman came up behind her. She was soon joined on Hisako's other side by the man. Octavia and Atticus, she remembered them now. She just wished they hadn't spooked her so badly. As if sensing this, Atticus broke out into a smile.

"Soon, you'll become someone with a fantastic gift. But also a great responsibility," he said. Octavia nodded in silent agreement.

"What do you mean?"

"It is difficult to see any details right now, but soon enough, we shall all become enlightened," Igor said. Somehow, even in a dream, he gave off that all-knowing vibe, so she was a little disappointed that he could only give her these cryptic sorts of hints. Hopefully he wasn't doing it for his personal amusement.

"Um, do you know if this involves a strange man with dark hair?" Running into him once was weird, but twice was too much for her to believe it was coincidence.

She caught Octavia and Atticus exchanging a look. "I don't believe so," he replied, puzzled.

"It's only supposed to involve a woman," she added.

It figured that it wouldn't tie together that neatly. Maybe she was being a little paranoid, but she couldn't believe that the strange things that had only begun happening when she moved weren't related. Hisako sighed in defeat and nodded. "These dreams are so weird."

"No weirder than the human realm," Atticus said under his breath, but she caught it all the same.

"If it makes you feel better, the next time you come here, it will be of your own volition," Octavia said. Then, smile slipping, she added, "We will always be here to aid you."

"Wait, I thought this place was a dream. How am I supposed to come here again on my own?" Hisako asked, but the Velvet Room was already fading around her.

"You will figure it out," Igor said with a wave, and she woke up in her own room. She definitely didn't like all of the mystery. It was entertaining as far as dreams went, granted, but she also didn't like that it left her awake at six in the morning. She didn't need to be up for another hour at least.

She decided to get up. She could try making a more elaborate bento or something for lunch, or perhaps just watch the morning news. She was sure she'd find some way to use up her unwanted extra time. Hisako ran her brush through her hair and then started braiding it back; she normally wore it half up. It looked detailed and pretty, but it was actually very simple for her. She had the movements memorized, and as her fingers worked, she allowed her thoughts to drift.

She'd have to go grocery shopping again tonight, she knew. She was also struggling to keep up in English already, since they were going over some grammar issues that she had never been all that great with to begin with. Suzuka had invited her out after school on Saturday as well, though she wasn't quite sure for what. She still wanted to get a part-time job, too. How was it that she could seem so busy and yet so not?

Hisako finished her hair and, still in her pajamas, tiptoed out into the kitchen. Her father still wasn't up. She ended up making her usual lunch, by which time he woke up as well, and she decided to try making breakfast for them. "What's the occasion?" Koichi asked, amused.

"I just woke up earlier than usual," she replied. She could make eggs, but they didn't have enough for that to be the only thing. She could try to make omurice, but that was pretty hit and miss for her. They didn't have any ingredients for pancakes, though she had meant to get them last night. Her breakfast skills were painfully limited. "I had a weird dream, and decided to get up afterward. I'm sorry if I woke you."

"No, no, you didn't. I was just surprised to see you awake so early." He turned on the television, and the woman on the screen cheerfully announced the weather. The day was supposed to start off cooler, but warm up around noon.

She gave herself the first omelet, since it turned out a little misshapen. She also timed it a little off; the rice wasn't quite done. Hisako sighed. One day, she'd learn how to cook properly. Just not anytime soon, it seemed.

After breakfast, her father said he had to go in early. He kissed her on the hair and hurried out. At least he'd eaten all of his food, which, she had to admit, made her feel a little better. Hers had tasted a little rubbery. Her extra time had evaporated pretty quickly, and soon enough, she was straightening her tie and pulling on her shoes. She ran out the door, bag in hand, and checked her phone again. She still had time, but she hadn't expected to have misjudged the time that badly.

Hisako slowed to a walk. Something felt off. She looked around, but there was no one else in sight. Finally, she looked down—and realized she had completely forgotten her socks. It was a bad habit she had somehow picked up in middle school, but she hadn't expected to forget again! She checked her phone again. She was almost to the bus stop and she didn't have time to run back and get them if she didn't want to be late.

"Nngh," she groaned and paused, looking back towards her apartment building. Could she run that fast? She didn't know when the next bus came after hers, so what if that made her late? Her shoes weren't uncomfortable without socks—part of the reason she forgot them, she suspected—but she'd look so weird.

Suddenly, her problems were tossed out the window. She hadn't noticed the woman come up behind her. In fact, she hadn't noticed anything until that strange man from before grabbed the woman and shouted, "No! Not her!"

Hisako squealed and dashed away from them, more surprised than anything else. The man was physically restraining the woman, though it looked as if he was actually losing. She was surprised at the force he was using—and how the woman completely threw him off. She was dressed in a tattered cloak of some kind and her wavy hair was a mess. Some sort of homeless woman?

"Not her!" the man repeated and lunged at the woman. She barked out a laugh and turned on him, blasting him back with some sort of—Hisako wasn't even sure what she was watching anymore. She hadn't touched the man, but he had been thrown backwards all the same. Wait. Hadn't Igor warned her about a woman?

"She's the cause of all of this, and you know that! You know that!" the woman accused. Her voice was surprisingly soft, even raised.

"I-I didn't do anything!" Hisako said quickly and backed up. There was no one else on the street, but the bus stop was only around the corner. Surely there'd be someone to help there... "You must have me mixed up with someone else."

"Inanna, run!" the man shouted and tackled the woman again. They both went skidding across the sidewalk into the street. There was urgency in his voice, and she certainly didn't want to get assaulted or drawn into a fight. Hisako turned and ran.

As she turned the corner, it was like she was abruptly dunked back into city life. There were several people waiting for the bus, a couple of them chatting amongst themselves or into phones. There was traffic and noise and life again. Hisako couldn't help her curiosity and peeked back around the corner of the building. The fighting pair were gone.

She pressed her hand against her forehead. "I must be going crazy..."

She mercifully got to school on time. A couple of students gave her weird looks for her missing socks at the lockers, but no one commented on it. At least, no one did until she shuffled into her classroom and Mika asked at once, "Why aren't you wearing socks or stockings?"

She burned in embarrassment and sighed. "I forgot them at home." Mika raised an eyebrow and stood up from her seat, closing her notebook as an afterthought.

She approached her and looked her up and down, seemingly looking for other missing articles of clothing. Hisako frowned at her. "How can you forget your socks? Don't you notice when you put on your shoes?" Mika asked, puzzled.

"It's a bad habit I picked up when I was younger. I would go play outside and forget to put on socks. My feet got used to wearing them like that. D-Do you happen to have an extra pair I could please borrow?"

"That's not exactly a thing most girls bring extra of..." Mika looked about the classroom. There were a couple other classmates there before the bell, most of them watching unabashedly. Two of them shook their heads. "Wait, I know. Come on." She grabbed her hand and marched out into the hall, scanning the students milling about.

Hisako wasn't sure where she was being led, but she was already used to the physicality of the other students here. She figured Mika would help her, just so long as she didn't get distracted by Yuri. She couldn't help but brighten when she saw the telltale red hair of Suzuka outside the library doors. She was talking with the taller girl, another of their classmates named Haruka.

"Sakuraba, do you have any extra pairs of socks?" Mika asked seriously, breaking into the conversation without a care.

Suzuka didn't seem fazed. "Uh, yeah. Why?" She turned and caught Hisako, then her bare legs. "Oh. How'd you manage that?"

"I just forgot," she sighed. She wondered why Suzuka would have extra socks but Mika wouldn't, but she got passed off to Suzuka all the same. Haruka said something that caused Mika to glare at her, but they were too far away to hear. "Suzuka-chan, where are we going? I-I don't really know this part of the building."

"Oh, the locker room. Most of us bring spare changes of clothes for after practice or just because, and I have some socks in there."

"You're on the baseball team, right?"

"Yup! I'm the star pitcher. You're welcome to join, you know! We're holding try-outs in a couple weeks, but I'll put in a good word with the manager. Have you ever played before?" Suzuka asked brightly as she led her into the girl's locker room.

"Oh, no, I'm sorry. I haven't."

"Well, I'm sure you would learn pretty fast. That's how transfer students are, right? They come in, have some outrageous talent, and then sweep everyone away with how good they are!"

"That's only in movies and manga," Hisako replied skeptically. Suzuka sat her down on a bench and opened a locker above her, then pulled out a pair of plain white socks.

"Sorry they're white, and they're a little thicker, too. But they're supposed to go with our sports uniform, not these skirts, haha."

"Oh no, thank you very much." Hisako was simply relieved she wouldn't have it constantly pointed out to her that she'd forgotten them. There were a couple other girls who wore different colored socks or stockings in the school, she knew, so she wouldn't stand out nearly as much now.

"What're friends for? Just return them whenever." They hurried back to class, making it safely in before the bell rang. Hisako wasn't used to making friends so quickly, but Suzuka was very welcoming. Mika was, too, in her own way. And she wasn't about to complain about it.

It wasn't until she sat down and unpacked her things that she realized that the desk to her right was empty. Yuri still wasn't there. He didn't strike her as the type to be late, but she hardly knew him. She caught Mika looking at his empty desk, seeming confused, so maybe he didn't come in late all that often. Incidents involving paint aside.

They were almost twenty minutes into their first class when he finally did arrive. Yuri came in with a mumbled apology, but Miss Yamashita waved him off with only mild annoyance. Hisako felt more than saw Mika give him a glare. Hisako herself could only stare at him.

Yuri came and sat down next to her without a glance their way. Hisako continued to stare. It wasn't that he was late—it was that he had horns.

She quickly glanced around to see if she was the only one staring. She was; everyone else was taking notes or texting. Mika only spared him one disdainful last look, and then returned to her book as well. No one else noticed the massive, black horns? Hisako returned to staring at him, incredulous. They had to be at least half a meter long, and he was already tall to begin with. They curved slightly and had ridges down the top, like an antelope or gazelle, she guessed. They were not hard to miss, and they were honest to goodness horns. She could hardly believe it.

But she was the only one in class who was paying any attention to their horned classmate. Not even their teacher had spared him a second glance.

Hisako sunk lower in her chair. Is this some sort of trick for the new kid? she wondered, a little angry at the very thought. She heard that practical jokes could happen, but she had been there for several days and no one had done anything. She wouldn't have thought that either Suzuka or Mika wouldn't tell her. Yuri didn't exactly strike her as the joking type, either.

She kept stealing glances at him throughout class. She could hardly concentrate on what was being taught. They were solid black, matching with his hair, and looked fairly pointed at the end. Yuri didn't react to the fact that he had them. He didn't feel them, scratch around them, or give any indication that he knew they were there. He didn't even act like they were heavy, though they had to be at that size.

What is going on here, she thought. Even as their teachers changed, no one reacted to the horns. She couldn't help but feel her own head, several times, undoubtedly messing up her hair. No one else had horns. She didn't. Not even the strange people in the Velvet Room or the weird man who called her Inanna had horns. Horns just weren't meant for people.

When the bell rang for their lunch break, Yuri excused himself without any fuss. Hisako watched him leave, waiting for him to duck out of the door. Instead, he walked through normally, heedless of the horns—and they fazed through the top of the door frame.

"I am going crazy," Hisako lamented and buried her head in her arms.

"Why?" Mika asked, leaning over.

"You don't see those, do you," she mumbled. She already knew the answer.

"See what?"

"Hey, do you guys want to each lunch with me and Haruka today?" Suzuka turned around in her seat, then noticed Hisako. She poked her shoulder cautiously. "You alright?"

"She says she's going crazy," Mika told her. Hisako groaned again. "I understand the sock thing had you worried, but—"

"No, it's—there was this man, and I've seen him three times now. And then this morning, Yuri-kun, he..." She was explaining this wrong. She knew something weird had to be happening to him, and there were already two sources of weird in her life, so one of them had to be connected. Surely.

"It's not often he's late."

She knew they didn't see them. No one but she did, for whatever reason. Maybe she had undercooked the eggs that morning and she was sick. Maybe she was still dreaming. Hisako allowed them to drag her off to lunch, though she didn't have much of an appetite. Suzuka cheerfully invited Haruka over. It seemed like they were teammates on the baseball team, but Haruka had been studying in the library during lunch the past couple days.

"Why?" Mika asked, appalled at the very notion. "And you have practice after school. Don't you get hungry?"

"I usually just eat something really quick. I just have to keep my grades up right now," Haruka explained. "I have to take a couple tests in a couple weeks to make sure I'm proficient enough to go over."

"But I'll miss you!" Suzuka exclaimed dramatically and latched onto her arm.

"Oh, right, you're in our exchange program," Mika said with a nod. She turned to Hisako and nudged her with her elbow. "You're not eating much, either. You're all so thin, you should be eating more."

Hisako was still thinking about Yuri. "Fine." It didn't make much sense. He wasn't acting any differently, though she had yet to speak with him personally about it.

"Hey, wait. Don't we have midterms in a month? They're making you study for your proficiency tests at the same time?" Suzuka asked with horror. Haruka nodded, hanging her head morosely. "That's so mean! I can't believe they'd do such a thing!"

"Hey, it means I'll pass my English tests with ease."

"Ugh, you should tutor me. I get all of the prepositions mixed up still."

"Oh, I'm not doing that well, either," Hisako added, forcing herself out of her own thoughts. She wouldn't dwell on him, she told herself. She would simply talk to him after school and ask if anything had happened. And he would be fine, and then she'd go home, take some aspirin, have a nap to clear her mind, and everything would be okay...

Suzuka leapt upon the idea. "We should have a study party some time! Closer to midterms so we don't forget it all again, but we could study together!" She looked at Mika expectantly.

She sighed and nodded. "I'll come, though I'm doing fine."

"Then you can help me with them," Haruka said with a laugh.

Lunch, and the pleasant distraction it brought, was over with all too quickly. Soon enough, Hisako was seated back in her classroom, next to the boy with the absurd horns. He was distracting her all over again. And as if out of spite, the horns seemed shinier than before, too.

Class was nearing its end for the day when she noticed that Yuri's breathing was beginning to become labored. He coughed a couple times, and eventually it got to the point where it distracted the class. "Sir? I don't think I'm feeling well."

"Go to the nurse, and then head home, since it's already so late," the teacher grumpily replied.

As he left the room, his horns actually made a clack sound as they passed through the door's top frame. Mika, on her other side, jumped and turned to the sound. Hisako didn't notice her movement.

His coughing worried Hisako even more than the horns. She couldn't imagine that they were unrelated, but because he was leaving earlier, she wouldn't be able to talk to him! She didn't know where he lived, not even which direction, or how he got home. She tapped her feet nervously as the clock counted down to when the rest of the class would be released. She could only hope that it would take a little while for the nurse to check him over.

Finally, the last bell of the day rang. Hisako shot out of her seat with a hasty apology to Mika and Suzuka. The horns had to be making him sick somehow, and what if she was the only one who could see them? She managed to find the nurse's office on her own, but he wasn't there. "Kikuchi-kun left just a few minutes ago. It didn't seem serious, but it could be a cold."

"Thank you." She didn't stay for any more explanation than that. Hisako refused to believe that the horns were innocent. She didn't see him at the lockers, so she hurriedly grabbed her shoes and things and raced out the door. She spotted him—at least he was easier to find, with his height and his new horns—walking leisurely out the gates of the school, turning left.

She managed to keep him in sight, even with the crowd of students all around them. They were getting out of the school's territory and back out into the city, which meant more pedestrians and traffic, keeping her away. She wasn't even sure how to approach him properly.

Hisako followed him as he turned down a quieter street. He didn't turn around or notice her, or if he had, he was ignoring her. They were off any public transportation paths and well away from many residential areas, so she had to wonder where he was going. Wait, why am I following him like some sort of spy? He's my friend, she told herself sternly.

But just as she sped up and meant to finally ask him about it, he turned down another alleyway. Hisako jogged after him, and was immensely surprised to find him approaching a small, grassy area of some sort. There were several older stone buildings, one of them looking like a small church. The gate he walked through was heavy and iron, definitely not Japanese in style.

And then she realized that he had led her into a small cemetery.

He paused and leaned against a tombstone, coughing again. Although she was creeped out about her surroundings, she told herself he was probably here to paint something. ...Except he hadn't brought any supplies. She refused to believe this was going to get any creepier, though.

He wiped his mouth and patted the tombstone awkwardly, then turned his head sharply to one side. She jumped, fearing she'd been spotted, but he just turned down a small offshoot path. She followed him deeper into the cemetery, past another set of old gates. He approached a larger grave, contemplating it, and then bowed before it. Hisako was more curious and concerned than ever, but she felt it was right to keep her distance until she had a couple more answers about this whole thing.

Then, he slid back the top of the tombstone. She jumped and bristled at the sheer disrespect for the dead—and then he stepped into it and headed downward. There are stairs! She waited until his horns disappeared from view and darted after him, staring in shock at the grave-turned-stairwell. "...Yuri-kun?" she whispered into the darkness below. There was, predictably, no response.

She looked around for someone else to help. A guard, a groundskeeper, anyone. The place was eerily silent and she was alone. She was fairly certain she didn't want to go down into the ominous, clearly evil pathway to pure soulless darkness. She was very certain she didn't want to. But Yuri had descended easily, and he was beyond acting strangely. Something serious was afoot and he was her friend. He could be in danger, or could be dangerous. At the very least, she wanted answers about all of this sudden craziness in her life.

Hisako ventured downward.

The stairs and walls were all made of a colorless gray stone, cool and smooth to the touch. The stairs were a little steep, and there was no railing, but she didn't have to worry about slipping. They ended surprisingly early. She could still see bright daylight up above her head. They led out to a dirt path, the same width as the stairs, that continued winding downward. It got darker as she progressed and the light from above faded with the distance, but she could still see well enough to walk. She didn't see any sign of Yuri.

Okay, Hisako, it's just getting a little creepier, no problem, she thought, trying to brace herself as the light faded. She could only think of all of the horror movies she had ever seen. They all had to deal with darkness, and she was in a cemetery, in a tomb, going down a stairway, into the dark, following her creepy horned classmate—stop it! Stop thinking like that, idiot!

But by then, she was thoroughly chilled. It wasn't too much cooler than up above, but the atmosphere wasn't exactly welcoming. The winding path didn't have any sharp corners for killers or monsters to hide behind, and she counted herself lucky for that. Visibility, however, was diminishing the farther she went down.

Then, she saw a light.

Hisako, hand against the wall as a comfort, peered curiously down the path. It was real light! The path had opened up into a large area, and she could see a far wall. She couldn't see a ceiling, however, as the path revealed a huge cavern instead. The light, soft and white, was coming from an unknown place, but she was so glad to have a new source that she hurried along regardless.

She was just about jogging by the time she made it into the open area. The light was coming from the far wall, to her surprise; it glowed up from the base like some sort weird lamp, uniform and constant. The area was still eerie, but at least it was lit. In fact, it was sort of pretty.

Just as she was thinking that and taking in the immenseness of the cavern, a voice called out "No further, if you'd please."

Hisako made a very undignified noise of surprise, something between a squeak and a shout. She turned and found—well, there was the monster she had been expecting. But he was thoroughly un-terrifying. Twice her height and with the body of a very muscular man, the monster had the head of a lion and large, blocky wings protruding out behind him. He was a dark, earthy brown from the tips of his bare toes up to his feline ears, aside from his eyes—a bright, nearly glowing green. While intimidating and very surprising, still not exactly horrifying. He looked more like he belonged in a history museum than a horror movie.

And so, she replied in her calmest voice, "Hello."

"All who enter here must have no further ties to the land of the living," the monster told her.

Honestly, it made sense, considering she was in a cemetery. And, compared to the fighting couple that morning, Yuri with those long horns, and the pale-haired people who kept appearing in her dreams, this was surprisingly straightforward. Oh, she had wandered into the land of the dead, and he was telling her such. Hisako was definitely back to thinking she was crazy again. But at least the monster acted sane.

"I-I'm sorry. I'm just looking for my friend who came through here." The lion-man's ears twitched and his snout wrinkled. "A boy, taller than I am, with dark hair and... horns."

"All who enter here must have no further ties to the land of the living," he repeated, but sounded a little more confused.

"No one's been in before me?" she guessed and he looked towards the lit wall, betraying the answer. So Yuri had somehow gotten past the monster, but how? He hadn't beaten her in by that long, and there weren't any other routes downward. He had to have come through there.

"You are the first living human I have seen in centuries." Oh—she hadn't been expecting an actual conversation. Too often, the monsters in movies and books were frustratingly cryptic. This would be a surprising change of pace, and it cemented his non-terrifying presence.

"There's no other way down here, is there?"

"Not from that direction, no," he replied stiffly, standing up a little straighter. But then, he looked back out over the wall. She could see a gap in it, leading into some sort of corridor.

"Well, I followed someone down here. I'm certain he's come through here."

"No one with any ties to the land of the living may enter."

"Yuri—my friend—he's not dead!" Hisako said at once. She was fairly certain she would have been able to tell if she had made friends with a zombie. If nothing else, Mika would have gladly warned her about that, too.

The monster made a gesture; it took her a moment to realize he had shrugged. His movements were sluggish, as if he was unused to moving that much. He had mentioned centuries, too. Maybe she had stumbled onto something a little too big...

"Can I just... Um, could I just take a peek in that place?" The cavern was large, but it was solid rock all around them. There was only the way she'd came, behind her, and the opening in the smooth, whitish wall, across the open space. Far too far for her to simply run for it. And with that lion head, she had the notion that he'd simply pounce on her if she tried.

He sighed wearily. "I will not repeat myself again. No one with any ties to the land of the living may enter. I guard this space, and that is what I have been commanded to do." He eyed her with those unnerving bright green eyes. "You may go no further, if you wish to keep your ties."

"So... I have to be dead?" Hisako asked fearfully, earning a nod. That had not been the plan. "But..." He had been very slow with his movements. Maybe he was one of the hulking, lumbering types of monsters.

"You are a fearless human child." She didn't like the label of child—or fearless. She just had a long lapse of judgment and a bad case of curiosity when it came to why her classmate had shown up with horns that morning. And she was slowly losing her mind, because she was talking to a centuries-old guardian of the land of the dead.

"Is this hell?" Hisako had to ask.

"No." That was only slightly reassuring. So Yuri hadn't led her down into hell. He had still left her with too many questions and a guardian to the underworld. "My patience grows thin. Please, leave here."

He was offering her an out, she recognized. She could turn and leave and pretend she never found that place. But that would mean leaving Yuri to whatever was going on, and who knew what that was? "What is this place?"

"Irkalla, where souls come to rest. You are not supposed to be here."

"But there's someone else, another living human, who's down here with me. I need to find him, and then I will return, and leave you alone forever." Her father always called her stubborn, but facing down a guardian of Irkalla should win her some sort of prize. Though to be fair, he had been a very accommodating guardian so far.

He took a warning step towards her, wings flapping once, betraying his agitation. "There has been no other living things down here." What Hisako took away from his movement was that he was not fast.

"I know he came down here." The monster wasn't fast, and he'd be chasing a smaller target. She couldn't believe she was considering this, and maybe it wasn't just for Yuri at this point. She knew what she had seen. She had seen a grown man and woman fighting in the street that morning, she had seen her classmate come in with horns, she had seen not another soul bat an eye at those horns. She was seeing a monster and the underworld.

And this monster would see her run for the entrance.

Hisako broke into a sprint and she caught him jump, as if in surprise, in her peripherals as she ran past. The gap of open space to the glowing wall was further than she had imagined, but she didn't hear any signs of pursuit. For a brief, heart-stopping moment, she thought he would simply fly after her—but risking a glance back, she saw that she had guessed correctly when she thought that the wings were mostly for intimidation.

The lion face snarled, lips curling to reveal impossibly long fangs, and Hisako turned back around. It was too late now to regret stupid decisions. She felt the ground shake beneath her feet, though, and she nearly lost her footing. She was halfway there, though, and had more of a lead than she could have hoped for.

But the shaking came again, and this time, she did trip. She caught herself at the last moment and turned. The guardian was bounding after her on all fours, leaps long and powerful, and was almost upon her. Hisako bit back a scream and threw herself to the side as he came down where she had just been. The shaking ground was enough to send her skidding, knees and hands scraping as she tried to get back to her feet.

"Get back here!" he roared, sounding too much like a lion and not enough like the civil monster from before. This had definitely been a mistake. It was too late to change her mind now.

She wasn't sure what she was expecting. She managed to dodge his next leap, by a hair's breadth, but not the following one. Hisako fell, barely catching herself with her hands, as he snagged her legs with—oh no, she hadn't noticed the claws before. She gasped in pain as they dug into her calves, cutting through the socks and into flesh. "Let me go!" she screamed, shrill, and tried to twist in his grasp.

The monster unhooked his claws from her legs and grabbed instead. He lifted her, upside-down, and she screamed again. Blood rushing into her head made her feel dizzy and she fought to try to keep herself modest and simultaneously reach his hand. She didn't have the strength to reach all the way up there, not when he was holding her by an ankle. Kicking him would have to do, but that hardly fazed him.

"You are a very intriguing human, but your time here is over. At least, as a living human," he said, and she noticed he was panting. So he wasn't that energetic. She could have stood a chance if she had just managed to avoid him. Then, what he said caught up with her.

"You—You're going to kill me?" Hisako asked in a small voice.

"I told you as much." He sounded disappointed with her. "No one with ties to the land of the living may come through here."

"But my friend did! Someone else got past you—I just want to find him! Then we'll both leave, I promise!"

"Little child, did you expect to trick a god and get away with it? You are coming in here as a spirit. There is no other route this situation will take at this point."

So not a monster, but a god. She had never heard of one like him, but she wasn't going to dispute it at that point. She gave up on her skirt and pushed away from him with both hands, swinging in his grasp. He still didn't drop her, to her dismay. More kicking, but that just earned a wince and a curled lip. Heart hammering in her chest, she wasn't seeing any way out of this—she couldn't talk herself out, she couldn't fight her way out, and she couldn't run away.

She could really die because of this.

The blood still trickling down her leg felt cold. Her vision was starting to swim and her head felt stuffy from being held upside-down for so long. But she didn't want to die. She just wanted to find Yuri and get the hell out of there. Hisako flexed her fingers and tried to push away from the god-monster again. "I have seen too many weird things today to just die like this," she croaked, feeling rather foolish for how this was turning out. "And I am not going to leave my father all alone. You will release me, and I will go find Yuri, and then we will leave. Now, let me down."

He snorted; it sounded a bit like a laugh.

"You could at least have the decency to take me seriously!" she said hotly.

"But you have not taken this situation seriously, not for a moment since we've met."

"I only wanted to do this civilly. I am only here for my friend."

"And you stubbornly repeat yourself. Like a child. Just a child, no matter how fearless or selfless," he said and raised her higher, so they were nearly eye-level. His green eyes were even creepier up close. With his free hand, he brought his claws up, lightly against her neck and cheek.

Sharp things, against her throat. This was one moment away from—Hisako quelled the panic inside her and did the last thing she could think of. She spat in his face.

The effect was instantaneous. He snarled, sounding very much like an angry cat, and dropped her. The monster seemed more appalled by her move than actually distracted. Hisako landed heavily on her shoulder, but she had managed to brace herself. She rolled to her feet, ignoring the pain in her calf, and pressed her hand against her neck where he'd nicked her with a claw. The adrenaline was working on her like a bad influence; she had come this far, he was tired, she was faster, she had not just followed a stupid whim to end up killed.

She ran for it, and he pursued her. She didn't get very far before he knocked her feet out from under her, though she managed to roll out of the way of his following swipe. The white wall with its opening seemed tantalizingly close, and yet too far for an injured sprint. But she was so close. It wasn't fair! She had come too far.

The monster leapt at her, shaking the ground with his landing, and she fell again. He was too close. She let go of her neck and reflexively brought her arms up to cover her head as he batted at her.

But the blow didn't come. There was a long moment—Hisako curled there, braced, only thinking of how furious she was at herself for doing this, for not finding Yuri, for leaving her dad and new friends behind—and then, it wasn't claws digging into her back and side like she expected.

It was claws ripping her apart from the inside.

She jerked and her back snapped rigid, uncurling her, and Hisako could only feel as something tore through her chest. Not quite claws, but daggers, ice cold and merciless. All of her anger and fury bubbled beneath it, boiling up through the gashes carved through her, and she could only stare, terrified and frozen, at the rocky ceiling above her. Her entire body was locked up, painfully so, and she was forced to watch as the blood from her wounds stopped flowing—and instead, began dripping upward. The pain inside her was clawing its way out, upward, fighting its way out to meet it. And the little flecks of red were joining together, brightening, glowing.

The thing inside of her burst out of her chest and met the blood in a flash of light.

Hisako collapsed onto the ground, breathing heavily, unsurprised to find tears coursing down her cheeks. There was a loud noise, a clack, and she managed to lift her head enough to see claws stopped just barely in front of her. That hadn't taken forever; that hadn't even been a split second. The monster was still there, still intent on killing her.

She tilted her head back, following the blue staff that had intercepted the claws for her. Her eyes widened. Her savior was a dark-skinned woman, as tall as the monster, muscled and strong. She was something out of some old culture, with a wide, golden necklace laying on top of a bare chest, and a skirt with matching cuffs dyed like blood. A warrior.

The monster was staring at Hisako. He seemed shocked—no, scared. She pressed a hand to her chest and looked back up at the woman. Beyond all reason, her heart was still beating beneath her shirt. Even after that thing had tore itself out of her. She could feel some sort of intrinsic link between them, though she couldn't begin to identify why. Thinking of her in those terms came as naturally as breathing.

Unbidden, a word came to her, and she felt herself mouthing it before she even realized what it was. "Persona...?" What is a Persona?

The monster withdrew his clawed hands and shrank back. The woman didn't relax her defensive stance over Hisako. Neither spoke, only sized each other up.

Then, with a swirling of wind, another appeared on the scene. Hisako screamed and jumped behind the woman with the blue staff. The other two just looked away from the newcomer, expressions souring further. "Inanna, what have you come here for? Why would you return to Irkalla once more?" It was another woman—impossibly similar to the warrior above her, except a dead husk of her image. Her hair roots were grayed, not from age, but it seemed like the color itself had died. Her skin, likewise, was ashen and unhealthy. She wore a long, colorless robe, body and limbs hidden directly from view, though she, too, wore a golden necklace with a blue pendant.

The woman above Hisako turned her head, frowning irritably.

But the new woman, the one standing in between them and the god-monster, was looking at Hisako. She raised her eyebrows, signaling her impatience. "...What," Hisako ground out. This was all happening too quickly for her mind to continue processing. Her body was sore all over, she was still bleeding, and whatever had just happened—for there were no actual new wounds on her, despite the pain being vividly represented in her memory—had taken a large toll on her. One civil monster was just that: one thing to deal with. But now she had three. Three god-monsters, no horned Yuri, and—did she just call me Inanna? Hisako realized, suddenly horrified.

"Dearest sister, have you already forgotten when you came here last? You may be quite careless, but surely you remember that particular past," the other woman pressed, sounding frustrated.

"I've never been down here before!" she exclaimed desperately. "I am Hisako Fujihara, not Inanna! Who is Inanna, anyway?"

She got her answer as the topless woman above her shifted, almost uncomfortably. Of course. She wanted to cry. These beings shouldn't exist, much less force her into impossible conversations and roles. How was Yuri even involved in all of this?! Oh, she would have to have words with that boy, words not even Mika could rival in one of her moods.

"...You do not remember me, do you?" the other woman asked. Hisako shook her head, hair flying, unable to convey how much she did not remember ever coming into the land of the dead before. "I am so sorry, I wish this weren't true. I cannot hope to grasp what you are doing down here now, but you don't have to hide from me here. If I can figure out how, I will help you, sister dear."

She wasn't sure if she could trust her ears. She wasn't sure she could trust anything about this situation, come to think of it. But talking was better than dying. "Can we... Could we please just talk about this for a moment?"

"Very well, I will not balk. If you so wish, we will talk," she replied kindly.

-.-.-

Knowledge: level 1/5 (+0)
-Harebrained

Confidence: level 1/5 (+5)
-Wallflower

Charm: level 1/5 (+0)
-Awkward

Empathy: level 1/5 (+2)
-Tolerant

-.-.-

Author's Notes: I warned you updates would be spotty. Also, I cannot rhyme, but I don't have a professional rhymer working with me, so oh well. Je regret! But rest assured, this project isn't discontinued until I say it is. It just takes a lot more work than normal fanfic chapters and stuff. (Dungeon planning is hard. Even harder when you apply raw video game logic.)

Fun fact: Yuri's horns are oryx horns.